The Writing Allstars – Seamus Heaney

If you have the words , there’s always a chance you’ll find the way. (Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney)

I was introduced to Heaney during my Irish Lit class. His was the smallest book in the pile, sitting atop a rather heavy stack as I stood in line to purchase my texts for the semester. As I flipped through the pages, I was immediately captivated. In fact, I lost track of where I was and it took several aggressive throat clearings and a few repetitions of “I can help the next person” before I came back to the bookstore. I may have read ahead of the rest of the class that day; I may have even finished the book in a few hours, guzzling coffee and highlighting the lines that moved me. Dissecting his work in class was just as enjoyable. I loved listening to my teachers affected lilt as she read through the passages, loved hearing the ideas that came from other students, loved the feeling that he brought with him, in the classroom, in my being. It was as if the world opened up before him and he was able to direct my attention to wonderful and weird things I otherwise wouldn’t have noticed. And I loved him for it.

I can’t think of a case where poems changed the world, but what they do is they change people’s understanding of what’s going on in the world. (This Week, 2004)

There wasn’t a poem I read that I couldn’t connect to in some way. There were dark ones and light. There were heavy, somber ones that made me wonder why they needed to be written at all, they dredged up such deep emotions. There were light, happy ones that made me glad to feel the sun on my face and made my heart smile. They were the poems of Ireland. Exquisite highs and lows all wrapped up in a beautiful turn of phrase. Words that cut you to the quick while healing you at the same time. Words and contradictions and raw beauty and power and sadness. Oh how I wished I could write like that! To take the emotions of a lifetime and let them come to life in a few, short, perfect sentences.

Between my finger and my thumb/The squat pen rests; snug as a gun. (Opened Ground: Selected Poems 1966-1996)

Heaney had a way of balancing you on borders. He was all things, or at least, had been all things. It was his strength, the balancing act. It was what gave him the ability to immediately relate to a moment and to relate it back to you, in your moment. Henri Cole said it best in his article that was published after the death of this great poet:

Heaney was a poet of the in-between…writing from a zone somewhere between north and south, between Catholic and Protestant, between Ireland, England, and America, between formal and free verse, between public and private, between realism and allegory, and between plain speech and loading “every rift with ore,” while also balancing the gravitas of his subject matter with the frolic and grace of poetic language. (The New Yorker, August 2013)

It is from this place in the middle of things that Heaney made sense of the “sides” that surrounded him, that surround us. It is only by refusing to belong to one thing or the other that frees us to see the truth of what is. Heaney was a master of finding the space where truth resided, and taking us there with him.

The main thing is to write /for the joy of it. Cultivate a work-lust/that imagines its haven like your hands at night/dreaming the sun in the sunspot of a breast./You are fasted now, light-headed, dangerous./Take off from here. (Station Island)

Because of Seamus Heaney, I learned to find the space between the lines and stand for truth. Because of Heaney, I realized that I don’t have to reconcile my opposites but can live balanced between them. Because of Seamus Heaney, I rediscovered Yeats and JM Synge. Because of Seamus Heaney, I am the writer I am today.


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